Robert Silverberg Wrote a Survey of Drugs in Science Fiction for the Federal Government

Illustration for article titled Robert Silverberg Wrote a Survey of Drugs in Science Fiction for the Federal Government

Back in the mid-1970s, the U.S. government was worried that the kids were getting too high. Drugs like marijuana and LSD were at their peak—and meanwhile, the government noticed the kids were also really into science fiction. So the National Institute on Drug Abuse hired Robert Silverberg, author of Dying Inside (pictured above), to do a report on drug use.


The report—which is available online in its entirety thanks to Motherboard’s Brian Merchant—makes for fascinating reading. In the introduction, Silverberg makes a distinction between dystopian works like Brave New World, which depicted drugs as a mechanism of social control, and the work coming out in the late 1960s and 1970s, which was more pro-drug. Including his own stuff, which causes him to refer to himself in the third person:

The older science fiction was preponderantly negative, as, for example, James Gunn’s The Joymakers, published in 1961 but written half a decade earlier, in which a repressive government sustains itself through mandatory use of euphorics. The same theme can be found in Hartley’s Facial Justice (1960), and in other works. Even when not used as an instrument of totalitarianism, drugs are often seen as dangerous self -indulgence, as in Wellman’s Dream-Dust from Mars (1938), Smith’s Hellflower (1953), or Pohl’s what-to Do Until the Analyst Comes (1956). The prototypes for the imaginary drugs described in these stories are alcohol and heroin—drugs which blur the mind and lower the consciousness.

Much recent science fiction, however, taking cognizance of such newly popular drugs as LSD, marijuana, and mescaline, show society transformed, enhanced, and raised up by drug use. Silverberg’s A Time of Changes (1971) portrays a dour, self -hating culture into which comes a drug that stimulates direct telepathic contact between human minds and brings into being a subculture of love and openness. This creates a great convulsion in the society, but the implication is that the change the drug brings is beneficial.


The actual survey of drugs in science fiction is pretty exhaustive and fascinating. There’s all the stuff you expect, like Dune and some of the works of Philip K. Dick. But also a ton of other stuff. And Silverberg chooses to divide science fiction into eras—not the Golden Age or whatever, but the Primitive Period (1900-1935), the Predictive Period (1935-1965) and the Contemporary Period (1965-present).

The whole thing is worth reading for its snapshot of how people—particularly one of the genre’s all-time great authors—were talking about science fiction in the mid-1970s. But also, there are a lot of books and stories that you’ve probably never heard of in there.


Contact the author at and follow her on Twitter @CharlieJane


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